The tribe of the times

As each generation becomes more liberal, writes Suzanne Harrington, is there anything left to rebel against?

IF YOU once hoped that you would die before you got old, I bet you’re glad you didn’t. Living fast and dying young is all very well in terms of becoming a legend, but it’s a bit final — the great thing about this generation of middle-aged groovers is that we have not been required to give it all up.

Unlike previous generations, sensible cardigans are not obligatory at 50; tribal culture has stretched to include everyone from preteens to grandads. There is no cut-off point at which it is no longer allowed — ancients like Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan show no desire to retire, attracting audiences as corporate as themselves.

Before, if you were part of tribal culture, you depended on fanzines and face to face meet-ups. Tribes were localised, and the spread of culture relied on word of mouth and the postman — post was slow (“allow 28 days for delivery” of your Sta-Prest, your PVC, your blue hair dye, whatever) and communication was in the hands of the telephone companies.

Not anymore. We are all pop stars now, thanks to YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook — but has this instant global availability ruined the underground? Does the underground even exist anymore?

Of course it does. Every generation thinks the one after it has lost the plot when it comes to authenticity, to being real, to being creative. That there now only exists the overground, the mainstream.

You may look at teenage pop creature Justin Bieber and his 40m Twitter Beliebers, or Simon Cowell’s intensive factory-farming of pop, and sigh. But remember Stock Aitken and Waterman’s Hit Factory in the 80s? That all-singing all-dancing machine that churned out Kylie, Jason, and other pop disposables?

Manufactured music is nothing new. Even when it looks revolutionary, always read the label. What was Malcolm McClaren doing with those angry spotty kids who hung out in his clothes shop, if not manufacturing a band? The Sex Pistols were made, not born.

There will always be reaction to the previous generation. Rock’n’roll burst through the polite, finger-snapping harmonies of popular tie-wearing singing groups that had preceded the likes of Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard. McClaren’s input aside, punk emerged to blast through the cape-wearing, knob-twiddling lords of bloated prog rock.

The rave generation was like punk in terms of its DIY ethos — a sound system and a field or a warehouse were all you needed, apart from a smiley T-shirt and a bag of pills.

When Nu Rave emerged a decade later, it looked a bit plastic to us oldie 80s ravers — but then it would, wouldn’t it? Every generation needs to topple the one before it — unless of course, they want to join it.

The difference in the internet era is that there is no automatic retirement age anymore. Photos from the recent Whitby Goth Weekender (WGW) — an annual event since 1994 — shows not only how the subculture has continued to grow since the early 80s, but how the original Goths have aged, as they are joined by new generations.

“And not just Goths attend either,” says the WGW website. “Punks, steampunks, emos, bikers, metallers, and people from all genres of the alternative lifestyle turn up year on year for a weekend of music, dancing, drinking and shopping.” Shopping? How, er, alternative. But then Goth is all about looking like a dead Edwardian poet, which does tend to require a specialist kit — from white make-up to corsets and top hats, being a Goth is not quite as DIY as the slashed binliners of punk.

Alternative fashion on its own is not usually enough to carry a subculture. Anger is required, in the shape of a cause, with music to carry the message. Rap evolved not as a showcase for trainers and baseball caps, but as Public Enemy’s Chuck D termed it, “The CNN of black America.” New Age Travellers emerged not because lots of white kids on the dole thought dreadlocks and living in a horse lorry sounded like an ideal lifestyle choice, but because of the growing rich/poor divide and Thatcherite social policy.

Further back in the 60s, curious young idealists and potheads set off overland to India via Afghanistan to colonise Goa not because they read about it on TripAdvisor, but because they wanted to explore, to find new places, to live new kinds of lives that differed from their parents’ back garden in Western suburbia. (Suburbia being that most fecund breeding ground for alternative culture — out of homogeny comes dissent; out of neat rows of houses come raging young people with funny hairstyles).

But as each generation becomes more liberal, is there anything left to rebel against? Has everything become commodified for profit so that there is nothing left that hasn’t been repackaged and sold back to us, or to our kids?

Going travelling — setting off into the unknown with a backpack on a tiny budget — has become an industry, with the organised hedonism of Laotian gap year trips, the efficient full moon parties of Thailand, and the transformation of Goa into a tropical Benidorm, where you can buy detachable dreadlocks to go with your Om T-shirt.

Tattoos, once the reserve of sailors, criminals, and psychobillies, are now as everyday as earrings. Everyone is tattooed. Everyone is pierced. And everyone looks the same. Has social conservatism skipped a generation, so that today’s kids are more consumerist and money-oriented than the generation before? Or is the global Occupy movement the way forward, uniting young and old with a common cause, bringing together politics, social change, internationalism — to the backdrop of a groovy soundtrack?

Now that we have climate change, will our tribes become a little more focused on stuff beyond shopping and fashion? Or are we all too drugged by consumerism, too busy updating our Facebook status, to notice what’s really going on around us? Let’s hope not. We oldies are knackered, and count on the younger ones to have the energy to fight back, and not sleepwalk in expensive trainers towards the apocalypse, iPods shoved in their ears.

Dedicated follower of Mod-ern fashion

You are never too old be a Mod. Never mind Roger Daltry and his trout farm, look at Paul Weller — the Modfather, while remaining musically busy, is as fussy about his appearance as ever, never looking like he might have rolled out of bed into comfy joggers. His attention to detail may appear like industrial-scale vanity, but this is a Mod thing.

Brighton, a Bank Holiday Mod magnet since the Sixties, was full of scooters and parkas a few weekends ago, like Quadrophenia come to life. The faces spanned all ages, but the sharp suits were ageless.

In Cork, a middle aged Mod called Aidan Quigley runs a market stall called Mod Life Crisis; he says the only difference between now, aged 48, and his 20s is that he is “less OCD about his tailor-made suits”. The music is still central, he says, but the great difference between now and the Eighties is digital communication.

“I used to run a magazine called Southern Survivor between 1983 and 1985,” he says. “And you’d be waiting for people to post you articles they’d written and it would take forever.”

Now, Quigley is on Facebook — making communication far easier. But he still collects records, and DJs at soul nights. Some things — like vinyl, like dancing, like looking good — stay the same.

Mod Life Crisis, Mother Jones Flea Market, Cork

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